Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November

The storm surge recedes and the digests wash onshore, although the fiction is a bit washed-out. Also the regular monthly ezines.


Publications Reviewed


Analog, January/February 2013

Here’s a double issue with double novellas, both involving the mysteries of time. Many of the shorter pieces focus on the issues of consciousness. Unfortunately, while some of the stories begin well, many of them stumble along the way. The ToC teases with the names of Flynn and Turtledove, but these are respectively a nonfiction piece and a Probability Zero. Not the best start for another new year. I’m hoping things look up, later.

“The Woman Who Cried Corpse” by Rajnar Vajra

We drop quickly into an action thriller/mystery, as Alison’s mother Clara’s prolonged dying raises questions on the hospital staff. Alison is being interrogated, under suspicion of causing Clara’s death by hacking into the hospital’s electrical grid to bring it down. Suddenly a group of terrorist/spies break in, shooting.

The sounds were horrible: yells, screams, and ugly grunts somehow worse than screams, all too audible because the guns produced gassy little snaps rather than ear-bursting bangs. And it instantly stank in the room, of fireworks smoke mixed with a fecal stench and the metallic tang of fresh blood.

Good stuff, lots of plot tension and reader engagement in Ali’s situation. More action ensues, as she and her daughter make a desperate escape from the hospital along with a suddenly-friendly government agent, and eventually meet up with Clara, now alive and much younger. At which halfway point in the story, the action comes to a total halt as Clara proceeds to explain and explain and explain about her traveling through time.

This is no way to do a story, not even in Analog, where the readership’s tolerance for infodumpfery exceeds the norm. There’s a reason new writers are advised to show, not tell; Vajra takes up half a novella to tell and tell and tell – far more than readers are likely to want to know. I’ve mentioned before that when you have characters going glassy-eyed in response to the tedium of the relentless infodump, this should be a sign to the author to lay off, not double down. But Vajra relentlessly keeps the pseudoscience and handwavium, which is indeed well thought-through, coming. The action scenes make it clear that he’s perfectly capable of engaging readers with vivid description. Readers might just put this one down in the middle, after the “OK, it’s time travel” moment. The data dump could go into a footnote.

“Time Out” by Edward M Lerner

Peter was ruined in the mortgage meltdown and is now doing day labor when he’s picked up by Jonas in the Home Depot parking lot. Jonas is the sort of disgraced mad scientist whose former colleagues could never understand the scope of his work. His lab is full of high voltage equipment, time readouts and dirt. Peter’s job is originally the dirt, but he gains Jonas’s confidence and learns that his project involves time travel. But when Jonas starts to get messages from the future, Peter becomes concerned, obsessing over cause and effect.

Time travel made my head hurt. Suppose Future Jonas of the earliest contact was gone, done in by his own actions. Was that suicide? A noble sacrifice? Insanity? And what of me in that future? My, or his, life would have been swept away, too.

As the story begins, we learn that things have gone badly wrong. Peter has just survived a deadly fire. The story then flips back to the beginning in the parking lot, but a pall of imminent failure hangs over the scene. The real question is whether Peter will find the courage to confront Jonas as he stubbornly continues with his project despite the warnings from his future self. Lerner seems to be warning us not to tempt paradox, not to mess with potential disaster.

It’s interesting to compare these two novellas. The Lerner story brings nothing really new to the time travel paradox scenario; it’s a basically conventional, character-oriented piece. Vajra offers much more novelty in the premise, as well as more lively prose in the first half of the story. Vajra could easily have written the better story with the elements he had at hand, but he ended up mired in infodump while Lerner’s was the more readable.

“The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen

Military SF, with acronyms. The DoD has taken over US space operations from NASA as the space race with the Chinese is threatening to turn hot. ODIS is the program for defending assets in space by remote, using robotic proxies controlled by Earth-based operators. But the Chinese, in attacking Grissom Platform, have first laid down an EMP blast to disable the proxies. This has worked pretty well, except that Chesty’s proxy was out of range, and Chopper’s is still operational. Still, they’re outnumbered, and the Chinese commandos manage to take control of the Platform and plan to abduct the proxies. Time for the Desperate Move.

Color swam back into my “eyes” and very quickly I realized I was staring up at a Chinese troop who’d bent over me. He was tugging at my torso with a tool of some sort. I could feel it, as if someone was trying to pry between my ribs with a pair of needle-nose pliers. I jerked and kicked—in the booth as well as via proxy—and the Chinese space soldier spun away from me, his tool lost to vacuum and only his tether keeping him from being similarly orphaned in orbit.

Good space action stuff, with more tension than usual in a first-person narrative. The human vs robotic factor is interesting, with a lot of the advantage on the human side of the enemy force. Unfortunately, it’s interrupted at intervals with pedantic training flashbacks, in which the author attempts without much success to make his characters real and sympathetic. I also note the use of the abomination “orientated.”

“Descartes’s Stepchildren” by Robert Scherrer

Theory of mind. John Benson claims to have become “the most hated man in the world” by “pursuing knowledge wherever it leads.” Which of course is not the real story. He was a neuroscientist working on a brain mapping project when his boss abruptly shut it down because about 20% of the subjects showed no signs of consciousness.

“Consciousness doesn’t produce any difference in external behavior. That’s why you can’t prove that anyone is conscious except yourself. Cogito, ergo sum, eh? You just presume everyone else experiences reality the same way that you do, without objective proof.”

The scientific community does not at first react well when John publishes his results, but subsequent research confirms it, with unfortunate social consequences.

It’s not often that I see a story so directly based on philosophy, and I wish I could give this one higher marks. The idea that consciousness is a freak mutation is quite interesting, but not made convincing at all. The likelihood of testing error is not explored. Even more so are the social consequences, which are greatly oversimplified. The implications for religion, for the theory of the soul, which would have certainly roiled much of the population, are not addressed at all. The premise is potentially important and deserves a deeper treatment than it gets here. I don’t like the superfluous “s” in the possessive of Descartes.

“Buddha Nature” by Amy Thomson

A robot comes to a Buddhist monastery to ask for admission. Raz [for Erasmus] desires to obtain enlightenment.

“In the course of my work, I surveyed the beliefs of all the major religions, and many of the minor ones. Buddhist precepts encourage an experimental and experiential outlook. The logic of this attracted me, as did its lack of belief in a supernatural deity. I find an exceptional human teacher more plausible than a god.”

The question of whether an artificial intelligence can possess Buddha nature roils the monastery and causes inner conflict for Samsara, assigned as the robot’s teacher.

A warm story of individuals seeking enlightenment and compassion. The author does a good job with her sympathetic characters, particularly the robot; less so with the antagonists.

“True to Form” by Kyle Kirkland

Another down-and-out protagonist, this one often reduced to farming himself out as a test subject for cash because the day labor slots are now taken by mechs. Cal[ifornia] Winter used to be a pharmacologist, and someone thinks he might know something about the death-by-drug of a prominent Senator active in the anti-mech movement. Which, as it turns out to his surprise, he might. Problem is, other people don’t want him to know it. Attempts on his life ensue.

Cal landed on his back, and the woman came down on top of him. Sharp pain went shooting along his spine. He felt himself being flipped over; he tried to shout but sod filled his mouth. His arms were pulled behind his back—almost wrenched out of their sockets— and his wrists started to burn, as if a coil of wire was being wrapped around them.

A twisty scientific mystery, with turns coming fast and hard. The trend for weird names is a bit off-putting.

“In the Moment” by Jerry Oltion

The issue’s cover story, and my favorite. Our scene opens as a peaceful sky viewing party, with the focus on an approaching comet. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t just a passing comet. Impact with the moon is imminent; Earth is threatened.

Comet tails didn’t always sweep out behind the nucleus. They pointed away from the Sun no matter which way the comet was actually moving. This one was moving sideways, like a pencil point. Like the pencil point of God, some said, writing “Mene Mene Tekel” across the cosmos.

A very short piece with a single strong image. The author lets us know that all over the world people are freaking out, but we see nothing of this; when one sky watcher turns on a radio, the others quickly shut it down. Yet they are more aware of the possible implications than most people. If the End is approaching, this is the way they’ve chosen to spend the crucial moments. Not an original scenario, but well done.

“The War of the Worlds, Book One, Chapter 18: The Sergeant-Major” by John G Hemry

A Neat Idea: expanding Wells’ classic to show the course of the Martian invasion on other, more likely, locations. But doing this sort of thing right requires close attention to the style and form of the original work, which Hemry seems to have thrown aside in favor of a farcical parody of pompous British imperialists.

“Unfortunately, Sergeant-Major, the timing of this particular invasion could scarcely be more inconvenient. Your lieutenant died of the fever two weeks ago, Captain Smithers is still on medical convalescence, and I have an extremely pressing social engagement. I cannot both deal with this invasion matter and attend the Viceroy’s Ball.”


“Neighborhood Watch” by Henry G Stratmann

Speaking of farce . . . The other inhabitants of the Solar System are sick and tired of the nosy neighbors on Earth. Silly stuff in the unfunny way, featuring aliens with names like Yuggoth.


Asimov’s, January 2013

No novellas here this time, but some long novelettes. A dark tone predominates.

“They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alien occupation. Earth has been reduced to the subsistence level, and the aliens who rule it are mostly incomprehensible, with rules that no one understands and deadly retribution for breaking them. Much of the ground is littered with the explosive glass remnants of cluster bombs. No one has ever seen the aliens, only their remote drones, so they’re called glassmen. One rule that everyone does understand: pregnant women are required to give up their children; abortion is punished severely. Of course there is also a resistance movement.

I scramble to my feet, kicking up sand with the dream still in my eyes. There’s lights in the afternoon sky and this awful thunder, like a thousand lightning bolts are striking the earth at once.

“Oh, Christ,” I say. A murder of reapers swarm to the north, and even with the sun in the sky their bombs light the ground beneath like hellfire. It’s easier to see reapers from far away, because they paint their underbellies light blue to blend with the sky.

Now Libby’s younger sister Tris has become pregnant and is determined on an abortion, no matter how many people are endangered.

I don’t like Tris. She doesn’t seem to do her fair share of work on the farm, and she acts irresponsibly by getting pregnant when the consequences are so dire, not just for her but her entire community. I don’t see any reason why pregnancy would be more particularly traumatic for Tris than any other woman; I don’t like the way she selfishly expects Libby to endanger herself or the way Libby forces others to help her, given the likely consequences. But I suspect the author doesn’t share my opinion.

There’s a lot in this scenario that reflects issues of the present day. The matter of abortion, for one, although the circumstances are quite different; we have no idea what the glassmen intend to do with the pregnant women and their children. They claim to be making social improvements, although what they mean by this is not known. Then there are the drones, the bombs, the resistance fighters that the glassmen call terrorists – all quite familiar, making the story seem like a critique of imperialist occupation in today’s world, enforcing alien values. Perhaps the preachers ranting against abortion are really collaborating with the oppressors? It’s not clear, but whatever is going on, I don’t think Tris is worth the cost..

“Over There” by Will McIntosh

Nathan, Ridley and Diane are about to conduct a physics experiment employing a quantum beam splitter. But they split more than they bargained for.

His head spinning, Nathan grasped the black granite tabletop to steady himself. Only, he did and he didn’t. He could feel the cool granite under his fingers, but in some sense his hands also stayed at his sides. Like they were in two places at once. It was a horrible sensation. A deep, rattling moan escaped him.

Nathan felt himself reach for the tabletop, but his hands didn’t move. He both did and didn’t clutch the tabletop while an awful humming, an electric moan, grew louder.

With all of reality diverging, the universe attempts to rectify the situation and erase the superfluous copy of itself, along with everyone in it.

This is a tricky read, as the text splits into parallel columns following Nathan’s point of view as soon as the splitter is initiated, and they must be read simultaneously. It’s science fiction horror at its most basic, terrifying and appalling. To the people in the right-hand universe, it’s as if alien monsters [dragons] are hunting them down and turning them to stone, while the people in the left-hand universe are experiencing their own destruction vicariously. A truly nightmarish scenario, from which there seems to be no awakening.


“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed

Feral Girl Scouts. Troop 13 went missing during a trip to Mount Palomar, and they haven’t been seen since, although there are signs:

surprise raids on picnic tables, although it could be bears. Outsiders swear the Last Incline is booby-trapped with broken glass and sharp objects, but they can’t prove it. They have to lug their ruined tires downhill to Elbow and by the time the wrecker brings these tourists back uphill with their new tires, the road is clear—no Scouts, no sign of Scouts, but their cars have been rifled.

Tourists come looking for them, disgustingly horny middle-aged men hoping to catch a wild girl.

A distasteful, misanthropic piece that doesn’t make much sense. Not really fantasy or horror, just a distorted image of human nature.

“Hotel” by Suzanne Palmer

Mr Smith – they get a lot of Smiths – checks into the Rosley Hotel on Mars, “the most expensive run-down-to-shit hotel in human space.” Also deliberately archaic and anarchist, sovereign neutral territory, the reward granted to Rosley year ago, when he was a war hero.

“They asked him what he wanted as a reward and he said a place of his own. They took him literally. I think it amused the colonials at that time to give him his own tiny kingdom, back when the whole planet was pretty much a lawless frontier anyway. It wasn’t until Earth stepped in and imposed order with the Mars Colonial Authority that anyone had a problem with it, but there was no legal way to undo the Agreement. This place is the only spot on Mars that’s free.”

But some people have a problem with that.

Entertaining stuff, as assorted plots and conspiracies clash.

“The Family Rocket” by James Van Pelt

Lorenzo’s Papa always wanted to go to space, but running a junk yard never paid well enough. So he built his own space ship in the middle of the yard and pretended to take the family to Mars. Except that by now, he may have forgotten it was all pretense. Lorenzo wants to marry Rachel, but only if she can accept the truth of his family. Whatever it is.

Heartwarming short piece.

“Mithridates, He Died Old” by Nancy Kress

Margaret is dying, and the law allows experimental drugs to be tested on people in her condition, although her doctor disapproves. The drug turns out to be effective, but not as anyone had expected, or realizes. Still, a rather typical end-of-life reflection.


Eclipse Online, November 2012

It seems that this new ezine is regularly going to be featuring longer fiction than the norm, which development I certainly approve.

“Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery” by Eleanor Arnason

Cultural dissonance. During war with the humans, Amadi Kla is a translator of fiction from English into Hwarhath languages, employed to help her people understand the enemy.

The foremost woman said, “It may be possible to learn about a culture by reading trivial fiction. There are people who will argue that. But humans are not a trivial species. They are clearly dangerous, and we should not underestimate them. If we study their least important work, we will decide they are silly. No one who can blow apart a hwarhath warship is silly.”

She becomes a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, and when a girl in her extended family goes missing, she is asked to investigate the disappearance – privately, in case there is something shameful involved. Which, as it happens, there is.

Unlike most of the recent Hwarhath tales, set in traditional times, this one shows them as a spacefaring race, attempting to cope with the consequences of change and exposure to alien ways. There are entertaining parallels between Kla’s own situation and the Holmes stories, as well as the Hwarhath view of human literature, which is often indecent by their standards. A fine example of alien point of view – that isn’t always so alien.

“Firebugs” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Jixa is one of six twelve-year-old Esta clones with a craving to burn things – Jixa more than the others.

I wanted to do whole fields out in the croplands beyond the edge of the city, but everyone else said I couldn’t, even though farming was mostly automated, and no one would know it was us. We can’t burn food, Jixa, the others told me every time I mentioned my desires.

But the pod is an experimental line with no obvious use, and now it is threatened with reconditioning, or maybe even recycling, if caught setting fires again. At least one of her sibs thinks they ought to get rid of Jixa, and Jixa agrees that maybe they should.

A pretty utopian scenario that could be considered a positive version of the Brave New World scenario, in which most clone pods are well-adjusted and happy, and great care is given them to ensure it. The details of raising clones and their psychology are interesting, but the conclusion way too idyllic.


Lightspeed, November 2012

Particularly liking the Tolbert story this time.

“La Alma Perdita de Marguerita Espinoza” by Jeremiah Tolbert

The title [“The Lost Soul of Marguerita Espinoza”] evokes the very original and intriguing premise: it seems that God – the “miserly God” – has almost stopped handing out new souls. In consequence, souls have become fungible – handed down, sold, and stolen. Alvardo was fortunate to be born with a soul of his own, but his family sold it off and apprenticed him as a custodio of others’ souls. He has now been hired to hold the soul of a rich old lady until it can be passed on to her newborn grandchild. But this is a perilous undertaking: bandits covet what he is holding, and the soul itself struggles to escape.

Alvardo wished that he could risk a sigh, a small one, but his breathing was carefully controlled. Any force and his filters and mask might not prevent the alma’s departure to the miserly God. Instead, he nodded and motioned towards the door. To remain in the familiarity of the alma’s former home would only incite it further. Its escape attempts would be endless and exhausting. The bland surroundings of the meditation chambers of Eusebio’s tower would provoke it less.

Not just a superior premise, but well thought-through. There are neat details, such as the members of the lower orders who can only afford animal souls, and when the color of a person’s eyes alter upon receiving a new alma. The conclusion rounds it off nicely.


“Seven Smiles and Seven Frowns” by Richard Bowes

Fairytale variations. In a world where the village witch is a respected member of the community, the children come to listen to her stories. But the stories can vary depending on the audience. There is one story in particular that the witch tells when she is looking for a new apprentice, the tale of a prince who meets a maiden in the woods. The tale contains the usual familiar elements, but it’s lackluster in all its variations. While Bowes’ story has a neat twist at the end, I would have liked it better if the tale within were more compelling. Decent idea, so-so execution.

“Searching for Slave Leia” by Sandra McDonald

Sheila gets time-bounced back to 1983, when she’s still in high school and going to a Star Wars movie. In the realtime, which may be a snidge in our future, she’s a Hollywood sci-fi scriptwriter having a heart attack on the set.

One of those second-person narratives that’s really first with the wrong pronouns. The story is only SF-by-association, first by the suggestion of time travel, secondly the narrator’s involvement in the sci-fi movie biz. What makes it interesting is the biz, the glimpses of the set and behind the scenes, as well as the narrator’s bitter wit.

“A Well-Adjusted Man” by Tom Crosshill

Jim is a Federation assault cop in a police state where disturbing memories can be selectively erased. The system’s motto is, “From everyone according to their nature,” and Jim’s nature has always been violent. But he’s now well-adjusted. Except that his son seems to be manifesting similar tendencies.

A disturbing piece, echoing truths from today’s world. Unlike many stories based on similar scenarios, this one lets its message lie in the characters, which makes it much more effective than lecture. Jim’s state of denial is profound.

He hugged her. “Why did he have to run off like that?”

“He’s scared,” Sara said, after a moment.

Jim frowned. “It’s not like I’d hurt him. I’ve never hurt him in my life.”

Sara stiffened in his arms. Breathed hard. Said not a word.


Nightmare, November 2012

Thinking at the moment that this new ezine classifies as dark fantasy.

“Construction Project” by Desirina Boskovich

Eli and Sarah share their love, their apartment, and their fear of a deadly creature stalking them. As the dark season approaches, they begin to seal it out, and themselves in.

We make a last run for supplies. We check each one of the rope ladder’s knots. We inspect the boarded windows for cracks. During the daytime, we turn off all the lights, and use epoxy to seal up every last pinpoint of light.

Intense psychological horror. The obsessive power of fear. I have the urge to quibble that the couple couldn’t have survived in their apartment, as they don’t appear to have allowed for ventilation. But that would be beside the real point in this case.

“At Lorn Hall” by Ramsey Campbell

Driving alone as a storm approaches, Randolph decides to wait it out in the old mansion he notices from the road. This, of course, is the sort of place that cues the ominous music on the movie screen, and the cries of the audience: Turn around. Don’t go in there. But of course he does.

Perhaps the stone was darkened by the approaching storm, but he thought it would have looked leaden even in sunlight. At the right-hand end of the building a three-storey barrel put him in mind of a clenched fist with bricks for grey knuckles. Far less than halfway from it on the unadorned frontage, a door twice as tall as a man stood beneath a pointed arch reminiscent of a mausoleum.

At this point, readers will be starting to expect some interesting variation, twist, or subversion of this highly stereotyped situation. Alas, it is not to be. A disappointment.


Strange Horizons, November 2012

“Four Kinds of Cargo” by Leonard Richardson

The Captain learned the smuggling trade watching video epics as a child, which has led to some impractical decisions on the bridge of Sour Candy. Such as returning the body of a dead crewmember to her home planet, during the buildup to war. Complications ensue. But oddly, the Captain is successful at her trade.

“In this line of work, we say there are four kinds of cargo. There’s goods to be delivered, junk to be disposed of, information to be transmitted. And there’s the cargo you don’t need to deliver, because it’s addressed to you. The experience of being out here in the middle of all this beauty. That’s the most valuable cargo of all.”

A lot of silliness and absurdity that ends surprisingly on a heartwarming note.

“He Reminds Us” by Jennifer Linnaea

The narrator is a guide who takes “the premier landscape artist of the century” to the Sacred Tundra on the world Yarres.

To meet Maestro Venturo, revered on Earth and also in half a dozen other star systems, is so outside the realm of my experience that I feel I’ve stumbled into some kind of waking dream. I want Venturo to love Yarres, I realize. To see in it the loveliness, the purity that I see.

A very short, subtle work about perception and how events can alter it. Ruin it. Insightful in a depressing way.

“The Hateful Brilliance of His Eyes” by Alec Austin

Framed as a fragment from the archives, “the only surviving account of the deeds of Captain Liao Jun and the Celestial Ascension during their exile in barbarian lands.” This is a different history from our own, with airships and ornithopters; Liao Jun is exiled until he has destroyed the dragon Fu Zhi, who killed Prince Zhen. Adventure ensues.

From his chair, Liao Jun could see the whole river valley laid out below him, like a campaign map spread over an admiral’s table. His ornithopters were specks of cream and silver, flitting out of the path of Fu Zhi, who wheeled and lunged at them like a cat chasing rodents. As he watched, a gleaming strand of cable leapt to take Fu Zhi in the side, just in time for the dragon to reverse course, pulling the cable taut and flinging the ornithopter through the air.

Fun stuff in a fantasy Celestial Empire.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

3 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November

  • November 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    “The Family Rocket” by James Van Pelt…Heartwarming short piece.

    Indeed. As it was 62 years ago, when it was called “The Rocket” & was penned by somebody named Ray Bradbury.

  • November 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Good catch, Ulrich. Except that wasn’t the original title, was it?

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